Language barriers impede more than twenty-five million limited- and non-English proficient (LEP/NEP) persons residing in the United States from accessing critical resources and services – such as election polls, hospital emergency rooms, police, firefighters, and public schools – that are necessary for their safety and wellbeing, and for the safety and wellbeing of their English-speaking children and other dependents.  According to Asian American Justice Center Director of Census and Voting Programs, Terry M. Ao:

[For Asian Americans], one of the largest hurdles that voters face is the language barrier.  Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires language assistance for voters, for the covered languages in covered jurisdictions, but that really means that the assistance has to occur throughout the voting process; so that’s both pre-Election Day as well as on Election Day.  It includes things like written materials — translated written materials as well as oral assistance at the polls — and publicity of the availability of language assistance to the covered language groups.

Section 203 extends protections to members of language minority communities in jurisdictions with significant language minority populations.  Going by the most recent (2010) Census Bureau data, Section 203 covers 43 Asian American populations in eight language groups across 11 states.  By balancing the cost and feasibility of language assistance against civil and human rights, most U.S. language-access laws fail to protect minority language groups whose numbers fall below a minimum threshold in any given service area. 

In her article, Language Access is an Empowerment Right: Deprivation of Plenary Language Access Engenders an Array of Grave Rights Violations, GJI Director Julia Alanen outlines some of the major obstacles that impede linguistic integration and sets forth a few notable underlying reasons why so many people living in the United States are limited- or non-English proficient :

[T]here are countless valid reasons why many [U.S.] inhabitants have not yet achieved English proficiency. Some limited- and non-English speakers are recently-arrived refugees and asylees. Others are forcibly isolated human-trafficking victims and battered immigrant partners of U.S. Citizens or Legal Permanent Residents. It is not uncommon for immigrants, many of whom are paid significantly less than the minimum wage, to work two or three jobs in order to support their families, leaving little or no time for language studies. Immigrants often cannot access or afford the collateral costs of attending English as a Second Language (“ESL”) classes, such as transportation or childcare, and pricey tuition and lengthy ESL wait-lists present additional obstacles.  Wait-times for professionally instructed English classes are running as long as two years.  Learning a foreign language can prove a daunting task it takes approximately two to three years to master a foreign language at a conversational level and seven years to achieve proficiency at a scholastic level.  The task is exponentially more daunting for immigrants who are pre-literate in their own native languages due to lack of access to education in their countries of origin. For most immigrants, learning English is only one component of the epic struggle to integrate into mainstream society, feed and shelter their families, and cope with the trauma, loss and severed ties that characterize their migration to the United States.

Although English instruction for speakers of other languages (ESOL) is the fastest growing area of adult education in the United States, according to the Asian American Justice Center, funding to support adult ESL instruction is severely limited nationwide and demand for ESL far exceeds supply.  A national study on linguistic integration conducted by the Migration Policy Institute concluded that “ensuring that immigrants have the opportunity to acquire strong English language and literacy skills is among the most neglected domestic policy issues in our nation today.”  Access to English language instruction and language access services are equally vital, complementary tools for promoting meaningful immigrant integration in the United States.  According to Alanen:

Language access is an empowerment right.  It is so essential to achieving any meaningful exercise of a bundle of inalienable civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that it engenders a corresponding right to a qualified interpreter in certain venues and circumstances… Deprivation of language access undermines human dignity, exacerbates immigrants’ innate vulnerabilities, and harms society at large… Simultaneously advancing plenary language access and linguistic integration promotes tolerance for diversity, reduces crime and victimization, protects and empowers society’s most vulnerable, marginalized populations and mitigates an array of grave rights violations.

Watch Ao’s video interview here: Asian American Communities Have Rights under Voting Rights Act, Says Ao, ACS Blog (December 28, 2011).